So, I’m still on Instagram and still doing this 365 challenge—though I’m vehemently denying both that I’m doing it and that it’s an all-year-round challenge—when I’m taking and posting a photo a day on Instagram and then taking a week’s worth of snaps over to the blog because—well, I have no idea why. Here’s this week’s batch, if you can live with not knowing why I’m (not) doing this.
You know how I always say that I’ve been up to nothing? Well, this week I’ve been up to so much shit! Still, I somehow miraculously contrived to make it look like I’ve been nowhere and done nothing. See for yourself.
Her mother-tongue clung to her mouth’s roof
in terror, dumbing her and he came with a name
that was none of her making.
—Liz Lochhead, “Dreaming Frankenstein”
Yesterday I wrote about the priceless confusions of English, today I’ll do the same for my mother tongue: Czech. It also has a huge potential for comic situations and so many things about it are just plain weird. Looking at it from a foreigner’s perspective as I imagine it, it must come across as staggeringly confusing. It’s a complex language on all levels, including the bloated grammar and devilish pronunciation.
To start with, how many letters in the alphabet does your language have? English has 26, Czech has 42. Yep. We think that the more, the better. We have twice the number of vowels because each vowel comes also in a variant with an accent (and the u vowel comes with two versions of accents, ú and ů). Cool, isn’t it? But wait, that’s not all! Some consonants come with accents too, when it comes to it. (My least favourite are ď, ň and ť because the poor things don’t have a keyboard key of their own and you have to press two keys to create them.) Oh, and also, ch is a letter of its own.
To make it more fun, we have decided that each noun will be either a he, a she or an it. I’m talking about grammatical gender. If you wish to use a noun, you need to know its gender so you could pick the correct ending. Have I mentioned yet that all nouns and verbs and some other words are assigned a plethora of different endings, based on how they’re used in a sentence? Czech is an excessively inflected language. (Inflected, not infected, but maybe infected with inflection?)
For example, the neutral word for cat in Czech is kočka. It refers to cats of any sex. The word itself, however, is feminine—for grammar purposes, this word is a girl. There’s another word for the tom cat (kocour), however, there is no special word for a pussy cat. We just use the basic neutral form. So when I want to say, My cat is a pussy cat, I’d say, Moje kočka je kočka, which sounds obviously like a tautology.
Here comes the real twist though. You know personal pronouns? It’s he, she, they and others. So, when talking about the female cat, we use the pronoun she (ona). Pretty straightforward. When talking about the male cat, we use the pronoun he (on). However, when talking about kittens (koťata), do you think that we use the pronoun they (oni)? Nope. We use the exact same word that we use to refer to females (ona). So, in Czech, when you have a bunch of kittens, they’re all female to our grammar.
Did it blow your mind?
In response to Karla’s Mural May challenge.
Big mouth, lots of teeth, one eye—whatever it’s meant to represent.
The first Wednesday of each month at noon sharp, all the cities in my country flaunt their combat readiness by running a civil defence siren test. I consider it a socialist anachronism, and I like a good throwback from the present (would-be) brave new world in the past good (bad) old times. I harbour suspicions about the purpose as well as the execution of the test, these however do not lessen my perverse enjoyment of it.
The most recent test of sirens occurred when I was waiting for my commute bus and watching with delight a new larger-than-life billboard of a nude (towel-wearing) sculpted man stuck on the side of the station building, advertising something which escaped me (but I’m buying it). First comes the warning mantra (“Test of sirens. Test of sirens. Etc. Etc.”), repeated in a flat voice for so long that one could get easily hypnotised. Then come the sirens. With a gradually increasing loudness.
I love the shrill siren sound. I imagine it reminds me of my childhood, when these tests must have been more frequent and more serious. Also accompanied by gas mask drills, which I regularly failed. Curiously, some fellow people (insofar as people are my fellows) appeared to find the noise disturbing. One young girl gave the impression that the sound was piercing her body and drilling with gusto into her head, as she was twisting her face and shielding her ears with her hands.
I’m siren resistant. So seemed to be everyone of my age and older, when I took a closer look at others’ reactions. Rather than about the noise, I’m concerned about the utility of the siren test, considering that it runs regularly at a publicly known and advertised time. If I were a Martian invading this pathetic piece of land, I’d definitely pick the time of the siren test so that no one would notice. For your benefit, I produced a recording of the test. I demand that you watch it until its bitter end because it took me at least an hour to convert and cut the sound. Here you go.
Continuing in my leg post streak, here’s a photo of a curious arrangement I found in a shopping window. I’m not sure if the choice of bodily parts plus the purse mean something, and I don’t want to know. However, I think it’s a great fit to my psychedelic bus story below.
The thing about buses is that once you get on, you can’t get off. It’s not like the train when you can always throw yourself out of the window when your travel mates are particularly taxing. I spent an hour on the bus in the tragicomic company of what turned out to be college girl students. It’s been a few days now and I’m still praying to the god who isn’t that they may not be students whom I teach.
The college girls produced a bottle of wine the first thing and started to pass it around. As they didn’t offer me any, though I was squashed in a seat next to theirs, I immediately disliked them. To start with, it was funny to eavesdrop on their talk (I didn’t particularly mean to eavesdrop, but they were too noisy to block out even with my earphones on). Then it got me terribly depressed.
Because a person commuting for two hours a day has nothing sensible to do during the commute, I naturally spent the trip judging them (feel free to judge me). The poor things were trying to hard to act as though they were having fun, but I was positive they were faking it. It was more angsty than cheery. Ultimately, it turned out to be simply stupid.
One of the college girls was musing aloud on the metaphysical question as to whether her nylon tights will get dry overnight when she launders them in the evening. While I do not undervalue the essential importance of this problem, it was the trail of her thought that saddened me. (Also, I braced myself from saying anything, but yes, your tights will be dry overnight, provided you wring them out properly.)
For one thing, she would normally dry her nylon tights in a dryer. In which case she can just toss them out after wearing and buy a new pair each time. It’s like drying your cat in the dryer. Neither the cat nor the nylon will be any better for it. Another thing, she concluded her deliberations with a heartfelt exclamation, If only someone invented a combo washer dryer! I said nothing but was half-tempted to invite the girl over to my place and show her mine. I could probably convince her that I own the first functional prototype of the combo washer dryer. She’d be thrilled.
A day before Christmas, something terrible had happened. My corkscrew got screwed – in a bad way – it broke into two pieces as I was diligently applying it to a bottle. I was left in an even worse way, with the prospect of holiday without wine. Fortunately, there was still slivovitz.
A few days later, as I ran out of slivovitz (the horror, the horror!), it occurred to me that I could claim warranty for my newish but already deadish corkscrew. (Also, I switched to rum.) I emailed to my supplier of screws, attaching a graphic image of the subject’s dead body as it was left on the crime scene. I suggested that due to the nature of the damage, I deemed it unnecessary to send the product back.
The seller responded with what looked like an automated reply, requesting that I return the faulty product, fill in the attached form and add a detailed description of what the problem is. (At the point the problem was that I ran out of rum.) The next day, I faced the depressive absence of alcohol in the house, but for an unopened bottle of wine. With determination, I set out to describe my problem in the form provided.
Lacking the booze muse, I hesitated what to write in the MALFUNCTION SPECIFICATION field. It seemed obvious: It’s broken. But I don’t like stating the obvious, plus I don’t want the seller to think that I approach my claim with less than dead seriousness. After all, the corkscrew is dead, Jim.
I was thinking of approaching a technical specialist to help me write my complaint: The product manifests a severe failure of structural integrity when due force (F; also, may the force be with me) of x Newton (N) was applied and caused axis y to detach itself from axis x, the latter of which collapsed, resulting in the absolute annihilation of the product.
At least that’s what I imagine are scientific terms for the colloquial observation that the corkscrew broke into the handle and the screw (plus the cork, still impaled on it). The screw would make a great prison shank. Regrettably, I’m currently not looking to go in jail. The complaint form remains as yet uncompleted, and I welcome informed advice on how to go about it.
That’s not the end of the story though. Today I was feeling inadvisably crafty and set my mind on creating a home-made corkscrew. What I used: the spiral from the broken screw, a double wrench (size 16 and 17) and some string. How I did that: I tied the corkscrew spiral to the wrench with the string. Did it work: no. So now what: I just pushed the cork into the bottle. Who cares about bits of cork in the wine.
Unless you’re Czech, you’ll be surprised to find that we Czechs have one of the weirdest sets of Christmas traditions ever. They range from tampering with dangerous chemicals (lead pouring), through animal cruelty (carp in the bathtub), to becoming a Christian for one day (atheists attending the midnight mass).
Preparations for Day C aka Christmas Day start with attending a local fair. Here, one gets drunk on mulled wine and mead in plastic cups, eats lángos and crepes with frozen fingers (the fingers are not eaten, but eaten with) and, above all, gets oneself a carp. Now, carp is not slang for a hangover, but the kind of fish that is served with potato salad as the traditional Christmas Eve dish. The catch is that the carp should be obtained live and kept as a pet for a few days, usually in the bathtub (jokes aside, we seriously do this). On the Christmas Morn, the man slays the carp with a mallet for the woman to cook. Alternately, the children take the carp to release it in a river or pond, where it probably dies of thermal shock, while the family dines on fish fingers.
Below is a clip from a classic Czech film, Cosy Dens (Pelíšky, 1999), showing a drunken bet of two brothers competing who can hold his breath longer – and using a bathtub with a carp swimming around in it.
The Christmas Day itself is associated with a number of curious and often apparently pointless rituals. One should starve until the dinner in order to see a golden pig (again, serious). The tradition does not mention what the point of hallucinating a golden pig is. Provided that you observe another Christmas tradition, lead pouring, you could however incur lead poisoning and easily see all kinds of animals as a result. As I never practised lead pouring, I can only speculate that one procures lead on the dark net in order to melt it, pour it in cold water and then guess what shape it is when the lead solidifies. It is not known what this potentially Freudian ritual is intended for, besides revealing one’s dark desires and blaming it on the lead.
Numerous traditions are connected to young girls, whose chief wish for Christmas was supposed to be to secure a husband. An unmarried girl could throw shoes on the Christmas Day, which is different from throwing tantrums in that if the thrown shoe pointed to the door, the girl could hope to be married within a year. It is advisable to remove pets and family members from the door area before attempting the throw and, as a safety precaution, to throw slippers rather than stilettoes. Village girls could also go out in the fields, holler magic formulas and wait from which direction the first dog responds. The girl would be married in that direction (not to that dog, presumably).
A short clip from Cosy Dens again, showing the most popular seasonal tradition: booze.
Many rituals are designed to find out whether a person will live or die anytime soon. An apple would be sliced into halves for each family member, and when the apple seeds formed a star, the person would live, but when a cross showed, the person was as good as dead. This can be rather easily cheated by using good-looking, healthy apples for the slicing. Also, what a waste of a good apple, because who would eat apples where there’s fried fish and baked sweets.
The same slicing could be done to walnuts as well, and the shells would then be equipped with a lit candle for a sail and floated in the basin. For those who are not crafty, like me, floating candles do the same service. When the nut ship stays at the edge, its owner will stay at home; when the ship sails to the middle, the person will become an immigrant. Sadly, the tradition doesn’t specify what happens to the person whose ships sinks in the harbour, as is usually my case.
For the Christmas dinner, a scale or two from the carp are put under the plate to ensure that money will stick to the eater as scales stick to the carp and that there will be as much of it. The dinner itself is a quick business since after the dinner, there come the presents. The father rings a bell, which means that the present planting is done with, and everyone lays siege to the Christmas tree. Presents are distributed by Baby Jesus Schrödinger-style. The baby, just delivered, simultaneously lies in its crib in the nativity scene and tours Eastern Europe, of all places, to forward its own unwanted gifts (now I’m fabricating a little, but Baby Jesus does deliver presents here).
Below is a YouTube for the classic Czech version of Cinderella (Popelka, 1973) with English subtitles.
Once the presents are unwrapped, the telly goes on with the obligatory Cinderella shown on multiple channels. After that, the nice things are over and it’s time for serious business. All mobile family members gather to take a stroll at the cemetery, lighting candles for their deceased. Cemeteries on Christmas Eve are real fire hazard. Finally, the Czechs, statistically proven to be the least religious nation in Europe, attend the Catholic midnight mass. The phenomenon of church attendance at Christmas remains a mystery of faith. However, faithful to the stats ranking the Czech Republic as the topmost country in the world in the consumption of beer per capita, after all the freezing at the cemetery and the church, we go home, grab a bottle and go to bed.
For this week’s Just Thursday blog hop hosted by Nuvofelt, I’m celebrating the mundane with a (not so) mundane postbox, which someone was apparently trying to use to send a rose.